Georgia football facility upgrades won’t end with West End dedication at Sanford Stadium

Georgia football-Facility improvements will continue after West End-Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia will be through with Sanford Stadium for a little while after Friday’s dedication of the West End locker room, but a new dedicated football building is next on the agenda. By David Barnes/AJC)

ATHENS — Georgia is going to have a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the West End improvement project Friday morning at Sanford Stadium. But any notion that will signal an end to football facility upgrades for a while would be grossly mistaken.

In many ways, the Bulldogs are just getting started.

The narrative ever since Georgia played in the National Championship Game last January was the Bulldogs remained behind much of the SEC in regard to football facilities and coach Kirby Smart wanted a new or expanded weight room.  Turns out, Smart is going to get a lot more than that.

Georgia already is conducting feasibility studies to exploring the prospect of erecting a new, football-only operations facility on campus. The project is not on the current agenda for discussion at Friday’s fall semester meeting of the UGA Athletic Association Board of Directors. But Athletic Director Greg McGarity confirmed  the Bulldogs already are looking into “something like that.”

“We are working on a number of ideas on how to address space deficiencies we have in our football program,” McGarity said in an interview with DawgNation on Wednesday. “So, depending where those (ideas) land we hope to have a discussion with our board, perhaps in February, of where we are progressing toward taking care of those deficiencies.”

UGA’s weight room and strength and conditioning areas remain among the smallest in the league in terms of square footage. Those areas currently are located on the first floor of the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall football complex. They built in 2011 as part of a $35 million expansion and renovation project that included a new players’ locker room, coaches offices, meeting room and the now-razed Nalley Multi-purpose Facility.

Obviously, that’s not very long ago. In fact, one of McGarity’s first acts as Georgia’s new athletic director was to officiate the ribbon-cutting ceremony upon completion of those new amenities in 2011. But he said much of that work is already out-dated or been out-grown. And the poorly-conceived “multi-purpose” facility was demolished to make way for the $30.2 million indoor practice building — the Payne Athletic Facility — that was completed in January of 2017.

Add to that the $63 million Georgia just laid out to build a new locker room and recruiting lounge on the west end of Sanford Stadium and add a new scoreboard, and it’s evident that Bulldogs are rolling out the dough for football lately.

Meanwhile, Clemson just this year opened a $55 million football facility, South Carolina will open a $50 million one in December, Florida is completing plans for a $65 million football building that would be completed in 2020 and Auburn is already well into study phase to start a project. Meanwhile, Alabama, which just beat the Bulldogs in the national title game, just opened a new 25,000-square foot sports nutrition facility where it feeds all its athletes.

Georgia certainly wants to remain competitive with those programs on all fronts. But McGarity said the Bulldogs’ particular needs right now are based on logistics rather than the proverbial arms race.

“Well, the best way to say is that we realize we have shortcomings in a number of our football spaces,” he said.

One of the biggest changes Smart has initiated since arriving at UGA in December of 2015 is expand the football support staff. Since then, Georgia has gone from utilizing less than 50 football-dedicated employees to more than 100 now. Meanwhile, the NCAA also this year allowed FBS programs to expand from nine full-time assistants to 10.

As a result, some office spaces in Georgia’s football complex have as many as eight individuals working in them.

“From the time of the (last football building expansion) the whole dynamic of the football staff  has changed,” McGarity said. “We’ve added a full-time assistant, you have quality control coaches, you have all the necessary ingredients to support a football program and a lot of that is driven by the desire of the head coach. … Our job is to facilitate those.”

Thanks to last year’s SEC championship and 13-2 run to the national finals, Smart is pretty much getting whatever he wants right now. And while competitive and financial times are going well, Georgia is doing its best to give it to him. Through their Magill Society initiative, the Bulldogs have secured pledges and donations to cover $83 million of the $93 million in costs for the last two football projects.

As for this latest one, McGarity won’t discuss possible costs. Based on others currently in the works, it seems to start at about $50 million. And the biggest question is where to put it?

It will have to stay in the same general geographic footprint as the current complex, seeing how they just christened the indoor building in that South Campus location. But they’re running out of room there.

Where Georgia once utilized four full-size football fields, it now has just (including the indoor) and two non-regulation smaller ones. Spec Towns Track, which recently underwent more than $1 million in renovations for national championship coach Petros Kyprianou, is off limits for relocation, according to McGarity.

That means Georgia may have to resurrect discussions about possibly acquiring the adjoining property housing the Hoke Smith Annex buildings across Smith Street from the football fields. The athletic department considered that property for the indoor facility but were already wary of political push-back before committing to build it in its current location.

Acquiring such property would require approval of the State Board of Regents. McGarity won’t go anywhere near such speculation until he has jumped through all the proper hoops in terms of process and protocol.

“I wouldn’t talk about anything like that until I had something to present Board,” McGarity said of where such a building might go or how much it would cost. “I won’t even discuss it, because there’s nothing to bring forward right now.”

However, he indicated the matter could be up for discussion at the winter meeting of the athletic board in February.

Meanwhile, Georgia continues to spend money as fast as it is coming in. The Bulldogs brought in the biggest check among conference members when they received $42.8 million from an SEC revenue distribution in May that averaged $41.1 million per team.

At its spring retreat, the UGA athletic board approved a record $143 million budget that included an outlay of $35.2 million for the football operations budget. That number includes a compensation expenditure of $9,418,877 for Smart’s new $6.6 million salary and the rest of his staff.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s trying to spread it around. It just approved $3.1 million for a new equestrian facility, is expected to spend more than $8 million to refurbish the grandstands at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex and is looking at spending another $16 million for new indoor tennis courts.

In fact, since McGarity cut that red ribbon for the last Butts-Mehre expansion in 2011, UGA Athletics has spent nearly $170 million on various building and improvement projects. That includes the West End, but not anything else that’s being discussed for 2018-19.

In the very near future, that will include a new football building that’s likely to carry a price tag of $50 million or more. Georgia’s AD doesn’t see that as a problem.

“Georgia fans have always been tremendous in answering the bell,” McGarity said.” Kirby deserves a lot of credit, because the whole way people feel about Georgia is different right now. Season tickets, donations, all that’s been remarkable. It always has, but sort of at a different level now. And that’s because people feel so good about the job that Kirby’s done and they feel so good about Georgia football. I think it bleeds over into other sports.”

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